by Frederick Gomez
Before this article uncovers and revisits some truly bizarre and shocking
occurrences at this world-famous racing oval, perhaps a little background is in
order, to help set the stage and mood of what life was really like before the
Del Mar Racetrack became the envy of the world.
In 1937, when the Del Mar Racetrack first opened, it was an entirely different
world than it is today – by far. To read about it is one thing; to step out of a time machine and come
face-to-face with the reality of 1937 would be a sobering experience: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is U.S. President, Ernest Hemingway publishes his
novel “To Have and Have Not,” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” hits the bookstores. Pablo Piccaso is busy painting his immortal “Guernica,” Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” makes motion picture history, and two men by the names of Benito Mussolini and
Adolf Hitler are stirring up intrigue in the European theatre. On the scientific and technological front, insulin is used to control diabetes
and the first jet engine is built. You pick up a newspaper to find that Amelia Earhart is lost somewhere over the
Pacific Ocean, or you gasp at the “Hindenburg Disaster,” or find yourself in awe at the opening of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge! The 1937 sports page is electric: Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber,” becomes the heavyweight champion of the world, and Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig
power the New York Yankees to another World Series title!
And speaking of sports, the Del Mar Racetrack is founded by Hollywood movie
stars and Bing Crosby personally greets the first patrons through the
turnstiles. San Diego, to the south, is a city of 35,000 inhabitants, and if you wanted to
mail a first-class letter from the sleepy town of Del Mar, telling everybody
about the new racetrack and the zillions of motion picture icons crawling all
over the place, well, it would cost you a whopping 3-cents to mail that
Very soon -- if not already -- newspapers will produce an avalanche of obligatory articles, all heralding
another exciting Del Mar racing season, a topic which mesmerizes San Diegans
beyond belief, on a yearly basis! And for good reason: above and beyond any other racetrack on the planet, Del Mar’s version knows how to party and has hosted some of the most outrageous fashion
shows this side of Pluto, such as the opening day’s “The One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest,” which started back in 1937, and is slated again this year for July 20, 2011. The women rise to the occasion, but the men are certainly coequal in their
participation, as well! It is open to all, and there is a $300 first prize in each category, $200 second
prize in each category, and a $100 prize for the same criteria. Grand Prize is two American Airline flight vouchers to any American Airline
flight-destination in the contiguous United States! Can you say, “BIG-TIME PARTY?!”
This year’s racing meet extends from July 20 through September 7, 2011, and the racetrack
is chockablock with events too numerous to mention, but which include summer
concerts, free family events in the infield every Saturday and Sunday and
plenty of things for the kids: pony rides, magic shows, a game-zone, stilt walkers, face painters and much,
much more! But, aside from all the fun and excitement, the Del Mar Racetrack has had
moments of dubious distinction that have made worldwide headlines!
MOST BIZZARE MOMENT
Perhaps the most bizarre happening at the seaside track occurred on August 10,
1995. So bizarre that it is difficult to believe it ever happened. Yet, it
did! During the eighth race, a spectator by the name of Russell Howard Caputo
suddenly jumped onto the racetrack during an actual horse race! It was in the homestretch and Caputo ran in front of – as if competing! – the entire field of Thoroughbreds, where he most certainly might have been
killed! Jockey Chris McCarron, aboard the race favorite, Sea of Serenity, averted his
mount from running Caputo down, as did the rest of the field of Thoroughbreds,
all in full stride! Thanks to the quick actions of all the jockeys that day, Caputo was narrowly
avoided and no one was injured! Del Mar photographer, David Smith, captured the event on film and the subsequent
photos appeared in newspapers around the world! The 38-year-old Caputo, a Beverly Hills, California, resident, was quickly
apprehended by Del Mar track security and turned over to sheriff deputies. Unknown to the public at the time, Caputo was
“self-destructive,” first planning his demise at the train tracks nearby, then opting to be run over
at the Del Mar Racetrack, instead! He was later turned over to a mental institution. (The New York Times, August 11, 1995.)
This wild scenario brings to mind the famous, annual “Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain; an equally bizarre event where spectators willingly place
themselves in harm’s way. Dark humor states that the annual “Running of the Bulls” is followed by the traditional “Soiling of the Pants,” and finally, the “Burying of the Idiots.”
This is certainly the kind of publicity Del Mar does not welcome.
THE DAY DEL MAR WENT BROKE!
Along with Del Mar’s celebrated legacy there also comes the unpredictable slices of life that are
not often welcomed, yet these moments come to roost, nonetheless. One of the most unlikely scenarios for any racetrack is that they don’t have enough money on the premises to cover the staggering wagering by patrons.
That happened at Del Mar’s mighty racetrack.
That fateful day was July 31, 1977, and the racetrack would face its worst
nightmare, financially. The track found itself without adequate hard cash on the premises, which they
needed to operate that day of racing! Early Saturday morning, an armored truck pulled up to deliver its routine cash
deposit at the track. The truck had the cash, but not nearly enough!
The amount of cash needed by the track was set for well over $2-million. One problem: the armored truck only had $170,000 in large bills – way short of its goal! What happened?! Gremlins were at work and someone had forgotten to place the additional
$2-million in the courier vehicle! Worse yet, the necessary funds were in a ‘time vault’ not scheduled to open until later that same evening! Could things get any worse? Del Mar Racetrack officials scampered to raise the funds: they quickly contacted various supermarkets, Sea World, savings & loan entities, even the San Diego Padre Baseball franchise! Try as they did, the concerted effort brought in only a quarter-of-a-million
dollars! John Mabee, founding member of the Board of Directors of the Del Mar
Thoroughbred Club, as well as founder of the Big Bear supermarket chain,
brought in Big Bear grocery bags stuffed with cash! Hardly enough. Finally, at the eleventh hour, Del Mar’s savior came in the form of the Union Bank in Los Angeles: they loaded over $1-million into a helicopter that was to fly the funds to the
panic-stricken racetrack. When you thought the worst was over, another nightmare scenario reared its
grotesque head: a brush fire in Riverside County necessitated the use of said helicopter. Enough was enough! The money was quickly diverted to an armored van and scurried to the
breathlessly-waiting Del Mar Racetrack! Under police escort, of course -- no further setbacks would be risked! (Source: “Del Mar, Its Life & Good Times,” by William Murray, Edited by Dan Smith, 2nd Edition, 2003.)
Money may not be everything, but in this case – it was everything!
Brings to mind what American author and Cosmopolitan editor, Helen Gurley Brown,
once said: “Money, if it does not bring you happiness, it will at least help you be
miserable in comfort.”
No truer words came to life than on that fateful Saturday morning, on July 31,
FIGHTING JOCKEYS & SEABISCUIT
Pound per pound, jockeys are said to be among the strongest athletes in the
world. Barely tilting the scales at over 100 pounds, these diminutive men exhibit
dazzling balance and agility, all while piloting a one thousand pound herd
animal. On two tiny strips of metal they balance on the balls of their feet while
traveling over 45 mph, often bumping and slamming against their rivals! While it is true football players often play through pain and broken bones, they
– realistically speaking – do not, literally, risk their lives as jockeys do on a daily basis, each and
every time they climb on board a Thoroughbred.
What happened at the Del Mar Racetrack on August 12, 1938, would raise goose
bumps on the dead! It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it happened nonetheless. And the consequences were mixed with pleasure and near-fatality.
On the pleasurable end, the nation’s top handicap horse, the immortal Seabiscuit, came to the Del Mar Racetrack on
August 12, 1938, for a winner-take-all match race with South American
speedster, Ligaroti (partially owned by Bing Crosby, himself!). First off, it should be pointed out that it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – for today’s generation to fully grasp the celebrity and fame that Seabiscuit exuded back
in his era, not only with racetrack fans, but with the average American
household, as well! Here is a shocking reality check for today’s public at large:
“Seabiscuit was the most written-about public figure in America in 1938 by
newspaper columnists. President Roosevelt was second. Adolf Hitler was third.” (“Seabiscuit: Racing Through History,” video, Laura Hillenbrand, 2003.)
As can be ascertained, Seabiscuit was not only competing with sporting giants
such as DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Joe Louis, et al, but he competed against the
non-sporting entities on the world stage! Suddenly, comprehension of his popularity level goes off the meter!
So what made Seabiscuit so universally well-known, and loved? Partially, because he became a symbol of hope during the Great Depression, when
America was crippled with one-fourth of all workers unemployed; a great portion
on the roads living in their automobiles. A time when
many Americans were actually starving to death. In Kentucky, many people resorted to eating wheat in order to stay alive! So, why was Seabiscuit selected as “The People’s Horse”? There were certainly plenty of other American Thoroughbreds at the time. Perhaps, Seabiscuit biographer, Laura Hillenbrand, gives a salient clue: “People were desperate for something that looked like America, itself. And along comes this horse that is as beat-up as the country is.” (“Seabiscuit: Racing Through History,” Ibid.)
History was unfolding, and its most unlikely hero was . . . a horse?! Yes, but he was no ordinary horse, in the same way that Mark Twain was no
ordinary author. Seabiscuit’s ascension has no parallel in American history; it was as unlikely as
Cinderella’s appearance at the Ball. “This was a star that emerged. But he also became a folk hero because people were down on their luck and were
written-off as losers, just the way (Seabiscuit) was.” (Gary Ross, producer of “Seabiscuit: Racing Through History” video, 2003)
Seabiscuit was scrawny and funny-looking at birth, often crippled and sidelined
with lameness during his racing career, and he was ‘written-off’ as not even looking like a real Thoroughbred. A Depression-laden America fell in love with the down-trodden horse which they
keenly identified with. First a loser, Seabiscuit overcame impossible-like odds and took an entire
nation of people for the ride of their lives! He gave them inspiration, by example. “It was the very American ideal: that hidden inside of every American is a huge potential that is untapped and
undiscovered and if only other people had this understanding to explore it --
or nurture it a little bit -- what could possibly emerge?” The equation being: “What would happen, if you give somebody a second chance?” (Gary Ross, Ibid, 2003.) In short, this was something all America yearned for; prayed for: a second chance in life!
That was the inspirational end of the stick. What happened during that match race between Seabiscuit and Ligaroti, at the Del
Mar Racetrack, on that hot summer day in 1938, was not so pleasant. The human factor is never as pleasant as from these magnificent animals. Jockeys Noel (Spec) Richardson (riding Ligaroti, carrying 115 pounds), and
George (The Iceman) Woolf (on board Seabiscuit, toting 130 pounds), engaged in
a physical fight-to-the-finish, each rider whipping and flailing – not their mounts – but each other! With both horses hooked in ferocious battle, each exchanging head bobs
throughout the race, both Richardson and Woolf laid into each other while a
frenzied crowd of over 20,000 onlookers raised the rafters! Race- track caller, Oscar Otis, was quoted as saying,
“That was as rough a race as I’ve ever seen in my whole life. They were hitting each other over the head with their whips and Richardson had
Woolf in a leg-lock. Never seen so much trouble in one race and there was a hell of a stink about it.” (“Del Mar, Its Life & Good Times,” by William Murray, edited by Dan Smith, 2003 edition.)
Both jockeys were, understandably, suspended for a few days. Fortunate punishment, as the racing stewards were so angry that they, initially,
wished them both suspended for the entire year!
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRLS IN THE WORLD!
Thinking his microphone was off, a noted national radio show host -- who might
well have been thinking of Del Mar’s racetrack – uttered over the airwaves, “The farther west you go, the prettier the girls become!” His legions of fans, not in the periphery of what is known as the West, were
angry to the point of blowing purple smoke! The remark caused a national furor, causing the radio host to issue an eventual
apology. However, The Beach Boys’ anthem song “California Girls,” leaves no doubt as to where the most beautiful women reside! And the Beach Boys make no apology for it. With great justification – and certainly with my humble approbation -- the Del Mar Racetrack has long sang the praises of gorgeous women, even making
room for “Cougar Mania” a popular contest the track holds with great popularity. If this ruffles the feathers of the “politically correct” crowd, so be it. Del Mar makes no pretentions. For over twenty straight years, it has been the nation’s number one track, so if majority rules (and we still reside in a democracy),
then Del Mar is doing ‘everything right.’
In all of sports, few things compare with the beauty of a Thoroughbred in full
locomotion, wherever they are seen! And unlike their athletic, human counterparts who are idolized only to be caught up in sordid scandals, these magnificent animals
remain noble, and unscathed.
The Nobel Prize-winning author, William Faulkner, once glimpsed the great
racehorse, Nashua, during a morning workout, and the experience stayed with
Faulkner for the rest of his life. Faulkner recorded his feelings as such: “He swooped upon the racetrack like a powerful, ravenous raptor; encircling the oval; devouring the furlongs; hungry
not for meat – but, for speed!”
My sister, Debbie, loved the Del Mar races. And for the best of reasons -- she loved horses. Mostly not to wager on, but rather just to witness them in full stride; regal,
and free, and often
with all fours in the air! My dear friends, Ken Ables and Carlos Ambriz, are stellar companions at the Del
Mar races. And they are both familiar with the classic lament at the pari-mutuel window: “My horse came in so far back that he won the next race!” It is important to keep one’s humor intact when patronizing any racetrack. Especially if one’s wagered tickets resemble confetti at day’s end and your wallet is as light as faerie dust.
At Del Mar, fact is sometimes more fanciful than fiction. By the way, Ligaroti, Seabiscuit’s disposed nemesis during their $25,000 match race, died during stud. His end came when he was being bred to a mare. The foal that resulted from that fatal union, was aptly named: Last Bang. (William Murray, Ibid)
There have been many indelible moments at Del Mar, such as the great Cigar’s unlikely loss to Dare and Go in 1996, and Zenyatta’s triumphant appearances, but this article wished to explore more remote
details; those delicious and rarified gems not often known to the general
populace, and not often written about. There is a treasure trove there, and we have attempted to uncover some of it and
glimpse a part of the Del Mar Racetrack with new, refreshed eyes! It is exhilarating to pull aside the stage curtains and see what lies hidden
therein, not unlike the time Toto pulled away the curtains to reveal that The
Wizard of Oz was, in a manner of speaking, an Emperor with no clothes! In a similar manner, I hope I have showed you a more exclusive
“hidden side” of Del Mar’s celebrated racetrack, all of which adds to its legend and lore. And
you don’t have to be into horse racing to enjoy such intrigue.
For all its ups-and-downs, and for all its crazy quirks, Thoroughbred racing
still remains the Sport of Kings. And its royal namesake is, surely, most alive at Del Mar!
About the Author
Freidrich Gomez is a brilliant researcher and a prolific writer, having written
a number of cover stories for us. Always a master researcher, he documents his stories with facts as well as
occasional barbs of humor. Among his other talents are Master Magician, World Traveler, and an active
member of the Kumeyaay Nation.
He is single and lives in Escondido where he is very active with his church and
its outreach programs to the homeless and needy. He’ll be back soon, count on it. One of our favorite writers.